Monday, July 24, 2017

Dropped from the Canon: Lost Literary Classics

I was at a garage sale the other week, and I happened to find Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and I figured that was certainly worth reading.  But it wasn't until I looked inside later that I discovered something truly intriguing: the publisher's list of titles at the back of the book.  This edition of Up from Slavery was put out in 1968.  Now, I've been reading stuff like Dover Thrift Editions and browsing lists like this for as long as I've been reading adult literature, so I've come to a certain understanding of what the classics are considered to be, those enduring books that are timeless and always worth reading, keeping alive in the public's imagination.

Yet, I found stuff I didn't recognize in this list.  Oh, one of them I'd just seen referenced in a newspaper Peanuts reprint, and it baffled me there, too.  (Although it's also worth noting that it was in Snoopy's vivid imagination where I first heard of The Scarlet Pimpernel.) 

Let's do a rundown:
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  This one, I think, happened because the Disney version has sort of taken over the public's imagination.  If it weren't for the movie Saving Mr. Banks, Disney might have done the same with Mary Poppins.  So this is an easy one to explain.
  • Erewhon by Samuel Butler.  Apparently a book that was first published in 1872, as a satire on Victorian culture.  Its legacy may have been extended by a time thanks to George Orwell.
  • Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson.  Originally published in 1904, it seems to have been replaced in the public's imagination by the works of Rudyard Kipling.  There was a movie adaptation in 1959 starring Audrey Hepburn, and the central character of the book, Rima, later entered DC comics lore.
  • Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge.   This is the one referenced in Peanuts.  It was published in 1865, and was responsible for popularizing both speed skating and the story of the little Dutch boy who plugged a dike with his finger.
  • Luck of Roaring Camp & Other Stories by Bret Harte.  The title story first appeared in 1868.  It was about the famous California gold rush.  Harte famously is a writer who was once wildly popular but has since all but vanished from the canon.  One wonders if his fate would've been Mark Twain's if Twain hadn't been such a successful shameless self-promoter (even if he was apparently a terrible businessman), much less Melville's if academics hadn't rediscovered Moby-Dick.  Worth considering.
We tend to think of classics as immutable, but they really aren't.  It's a fascinating subject, and these are clear examples of fortunes that obviously changed over time.  Usually you hear stories of the ones whose fortunes rose, like Melville.  It's humbling to think fortunes can sink, too.  When Harry Potter was at its hottest, you saw people trying to argue that the series was not destined to live forever regardless of its initial success, referencing other popular books that today are totally unknown (I wonder if they weren't thinking of series more akin to the many that have tried to cash in on J.K. Rowling's ideas in recent years, many of which have been modestly popular, just nowhere near the same level).  I still wonder if Harry hasn't already beaten that, but you never know.
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